Pope Calls Nuns to Engage in “Fertile Chastity”

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May 9, 2013; PRI, “The World”

Pope Francis got up in front of 800 women superiors of religious orders to call them to a “fertile” chastity that would “generate spiritual children in the church.” He also suggested that “The nuns should be like mothers, …not like spinsters” (or “old maids,” depending on the translation of the Italian word zitella) and that the nuns should be obedient and have an attitude of adoration and service.

NPQ’s recent newswire covered Pope Francis’ recent reaffirmation of the need for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—historically, the office that monitors strict compliance with church teaching—to keep the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of nuns in the U.S., under supervision or a kind of receivership. The rebuke was based on the nuns’ promotion of “certain radical feminist themes,” among other things.

Doctor Lavinia Byrne, a theologian, practicing Catholic, and former nun, was interviewed by Public Radio International’s “The World,” and she called his language “old-fashioned and so inappropriate.” She said, “What I fear frankly is that his reticence is that he’s not looking at the of what really should be looked at which is the place of women in general in the Church and the aspiration some women to be ordained. We cannot go on living in the medieval period.”

Going on, Byrne said that, if she had the chance to put a bug in the ear of the Pope, it would be this: “Please, please consider what the Church has done for women. It’s changed their aspiration by saying to them, ‘You have the right to be well educated. You have the right to have opinions.’ So please take our education and our opinion and don’t go on punishment women for a sin they never committed. Ordain them for God’s sake.”—Ruth McCambridge 

  • Scott Walter

    Non-Catholics may not realize that there is a very long history in the Church that calls for celibate women and men to exercise “spiritual motherhood” and “spiritual fatherhood.” That is what the Pope’s reference to “fertile chastity” involves. And by the way, what the Church means is precisely the kind of virtues and service to others that nonprofits are supposed to care about. On this topic one should read, for example, the writings of Edith Stein, now declared a saint after her death at Auschwitz. She wrote powerfully on this theme, and she was no wimpy slave to men; before she became a Catholic, she was one of the most brilliant philosophers in Germany, a Jewish intellectual who was a student of Husserl and knew most of the Continent’s leading minds.

    Here’s a woman writing on Stein and John Paul II’s understanding of this topic, which ought to make clear that women are being praised, not insulted, by it:

    “Pope John Paul II raises this feminine vocation to truly cosmic proportions, looking to women for the rehumanization of a world dominated by hedonism and materialism. In The Gospel of Life he calls upon women to ‘teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.’ This contribution of women, declares the Holy Father, is ‘an indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change,’ for replacing the culture of death with the civilization of love.

    “In addition to this cultural or spiritual motherhood, Stein sees woman’s calling as including a spousal dimension, the role of companionship. This involves sharing the life of another, entering into it and making that person’s concerns one’s own. One might argue that this is a vocation for both men and women, and it is unlikely that Stein would deny that it is. But it may also be true that women have a special genius for friendship, perhaps because of their orientation to the human and personal, and a greater capacity for exercising empathy.”

  • Scott Walter

    I should have made clear that Edith Stein became a Carmelite nun.

  • CjH

    Sad. Dr. Byrne and this article are missing the beauty of the feminine… and that does not equate to being more ‘masculine.’ One can challenge the ‘masculine’ side of the world to have a deeper respect and love for the feminine and maybe there wont be as much tension, but the balance is not met by trying to mirror the masculine. Dr. Byrne should spend more time with philosophy and less in comparison. That may be to ‘motherly’ though, and to her, that would be insulting.